Those with only a casual knowledge of sports might not be aware of it, but one of the greatest traditions in all of sport happens this weekend. What? I can hear some of you ask. The World Series is over, the Super Bowl and the big college bowl games arenâ€™t until early next year, the NBA is just starting, and the NHL is locked out. What exactly is this weekend? The epic battle that will take place this Saturday here in Columbus, Ohio is a college football game between the University of Michigan Wolverines and The Ohio State University Buckeyes.
But this is not just a football game, it is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. For those unfamiliar with it, a recently released book might shed some light on the epic nature of this classic gridiron clash. The 100-Yard War: Inside the 100-Year-Old Michigan-Ohio State Football Rivalry by Greg Emmanuel is a fast paced pop culture look at the history of this storied game. It traces the history, tradition, culture, and popularity of one of the greatest rivalries in all of sport.
How can a regular season college football game stake a claim to such a label? In The 100-Yard War Emmanuel outlines a few reasons: history, tradition, quality, and intensity.
The rivalry between Ohio and Michigan goes back a long way; in fact before they were even states. A land dispute arising out of some bad survey work led to angry rhetoric, border skirmishes, and heavy lobbying. In 1835 the dispute was decided in Ohio’s favor by President Andrew Jackson but the bad blood continued on.
In 1897 this inter-state rivalry was transferred to the fledgling game of football and the sport has never been the same. Emmanuel traces the ensuing rivalry’s history from its humble beginnings in that first October game (in 1935 the game was changed to the final conference game which falls in November), as it grew and developed during the early twentieth century, through the classic years of the late 60′s and into the 70′s, and concluding with the centennial meeting last year in Ann Arbor. It traces the blowouts, the stalemates, the epic victories and the shattering upsets. In the end, it becomes clear that this contest is an integral part of college football history.
As this book makes clear, however, The Game is not just a slice of sports history, but has become wrapped up in the traditions and cultures of the two schools and their surrounding communities. The Game has taken on a life of its own. Over a 100,000 people watch the game in person each November in the massive stadiums of the respective schools. Last years centennial game was the largest crowd ever to attend a NCAA football game as over 112,000 people packed into the stadium in Ann Arbor known as The Big House. The tailgating involved is up and beyond the normal festivities of college football with converted school busses, RVs, and thousands on foot congregating around the stadiums to eat, drink, and socialize before, during, and after the game. Those unable to attend plan their fall schedule around the game and throw Super Bowl like parties to watch the nationally televised game. Both schools dedicate the entire week prior to the game to special events and activities designed to fire up the team and the student body for this one game. The energy and tension in the college towns prior to the game is palpable. The Game is an integral part of the traditions and social life of these two schools, their alumni and fans, and the communities that house them.
Emmanuel also notes that the quality of these games is nearly unrivaled. Amazingly, in the last fifty games, the record is deadlocked at 24-24-2. That is evenly matched. But it is not evenly matched mediocrity. Since 1935 The Game has decided the Big Ten Championship outright (OSU or UM) 19 times while on twenty-one other occasions one of the two teams was playing for at least a share of the Big Ten Championship. In other words, two out of every three games saw the conference championship on the line. From 1969-1978 the Big Ten title came down to these two teams nine times. In the last decade, someone has spoiled the other team’s championship hopes four times. And if that isnâ€™t enough the National Championship is often on the line as well. In the 1990′s Buckeye fans watched in horror as some highly ranked Ohio State teams regularly lost The Game and a chance at the National Title. Michigan had to hold off a tough Ohio State team 20-14 before they could win their National Championship in 1997. And it wasn’t until 2002 that the Buckeyes finally broke free and beat Michigan on their way to a National Championship. Last year they had hopes of defending that title only to see it slip away in Ann Arbor. Almost every year this game figures heavily in the Big Ten Championship and has an impact on the national rankings.
Out of all of this history, tradition, and competition comes a rivalry that practically defines the term. The coaches and players who built this rivalry built their respective programs into what they are today. This is a common theme that runs through this story: coaches and players are often judged by the results of this game. Each university’s legends – people like Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, and Bo Schembechler at Michigan and Chip Harley, Paul Brown, and Woody Hayes at Ohio State – all were judged on what they did in The Game. The legendary battles between Woody Hayes and his one time Assistant Schembechler built the game into what it is today. Woody is as much a symbol of Ohio State football as Brutus the Buckeye. Yost, Crisler, and Schembechler not only built the rivalry but they built much of Michigan athletics. The campus buildings named in their honor confirm their place in history.
I can attest that his game becomes a part of your blood. I grew up in Michigan cheering for the Maize and Blue; for the team with those unique helmets. I wanted to beat Ohio State before I could even play football. In fact, I was so into this rivalry that I was very reluctant to move to Columbus; moving to Columbus was like moving to Moscow. It took years of living here to wear down the negative connotations I had associated with this town. But even after years of living here I havenâ€™t given up cheering on my Wolverines; if anything it has intensified. As you can imagine, Saturday is a big day for me.
For those unfamiliar with the history and culture of this great rivalry, The 100-Yard War is a decent introduction. It is, however, a pop culture history and there is a not insignificant amount of adult language included. There are no real insights or scoop involved and most die-hard fans will be familiar with the history and anecdotes related. But they will also probably enjoy revisiting the great games of the past and remembering the legends that played in them. Newcomers to the rivalry will come away with a better appreciation of the intense feelings this game generates and the amazing history that has led to this point. And to be honest it is hard to capture the real essence of this game. For that you need to watch it, follow it, and live it. That is what makes it one of the greatest traditions in the annals of sports.
Oh, and Go Blue!